Exploring Culpeper and Orange–Somerville and Raccoon Fords


From John Hennessy:

Last weekend I had the great pleasure to be invited to explore some great sites along the Rapidan in both Culpeper and Orange Counties. Brett Johnson, who lives near Rapidan, and Walker Somerville, scion of the family that has owned land at Somerville Ford for three centuries, were the hosts. My thanks to them for a memorable day–they know the ground as only locals can, and many of the specifics included here were conveyed by them.

Union pickets at Somerville Ford on September 14, 1863.

Union pickets at Somerville Ford on September 14, 1863. Note the Confederate lunettes on the distant heights.  The two barns on the right of this image also appear in the sketch shared below.

The purpose of this post is simply to provide a visual record of what we saw, without too much elaboration. If you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments.  If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

Bear in mind that every site mentioned in this post is private property and generally not accessible to the public.

IMG_0370We started at Somerville Ford on the Rapidan River. Here, on August 20, 1862, the entirety of Jackson’s wing of Lee’s Army crossed to commence the Second Manassas campaign.  Samuel Buck of the 13th VA crossed here that day:

This washed-out cut is on the site of Somerville Ford on the Orange side, and may well be the remnant of the road to the ford used by Jackson's men.

This washed-out cut is on the site of Somerville Ford on the Orange side, and may well be the remnant of the road to the ford used by Jackson’s men.

The water was pretty deep but very pleasant to our warm bodies. As soon as we could get our trousers off we waded in, yelling like a lot of school boys. It is an interesting sight to see so many men crossing a river and most amusing to hear their witty remarks.  Men under such circumstances are only grown children.

The old road leading up from the ford on the Culpeper side. The left bank of the road cut is clearly visible.

The old road leading up from the ford on the Culpeper side. The left bank of the road cut is clearly visible.

On September 14, 1863, Union and Confederate artillery engaged in fairly robust counter-battery fire here.  Charles Furlow of the 4th Georgia (his diary is at Yale University) left a fair description. [More images beyond the jump.] Continue reading

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A new and stunning image


From John Hennessy:

No, it’s not a period photograph, but rather an aerial view taken in 1933. It came to us today, thanks to one of our regional landscape architects, Eliot Foulds, who was poking around the National Archives and came across a collection titled “Airscapes.” This was a project of the Army Air Corps that produced low-level aerial views of important places.  This image offers a view of the Fredericksburg region–one that shows the landscape beyond town virtually unchanged since the Civil War.  The image includes the only comprehensive view of the south end of the battlefield we have ever seen. Beyond that, there are hundreds of details worth noting.  We’ll get to just a few of them today.1933 Aerial FRSP RG 18AA BOX 128 smaller

The picture was taken over the Rappahannock River looking a few degrees east of south. Fredericksburg is to the right, Chatham is at lower left. There are lots of details in the view of Chatham that we’ll talk about in another post. But look beyond, to the south. If you have ever wanted a vision of what the south end of the battlefield looked like in 1862, this is likely as close as you’ll get.  We have included a hi-res scan of the image at the end of this post, which you can download and explore yourself. In the meantime, here are the first things that came to our eyes. Click on other images to enlarge them.

1933 image below town labeled

Here is some detail on the lower crossing site.  As many of you who have been there with us in the last few years know, this is now a virtually impenetrable jungle. In this view, you can see clearly why the spot was so attractive to Union engineers–a wide, flat area with an easy ascent to the surrounding bluffs.

1933 Aerial FRSP RG 18AA BOX 128 cropped on lower crossing

Also in this image is the field much as Pelham saw it when he opened fire from the corner of what is today Route 2 (the historic Bowling Green Road) and Benchmark Road.  Pelham’s corner is at the left edge of the photo, the postwar buildings on Slaughter Pen farm at the right edge.

1933 Aerial FRSP RG 18AA BOX 128 pelham's field of fire

One part of this landscape had changed dramatically by 1933. Here’s an enlargement of the city dock–the middle crossing site. As you can see, it was a vastly different place then, covered with tanks and other infrastructure. The tanks in this view were swept away in the flood of 1942–clearing the way (literally) for a transformation of the area (and, surely, a dramatic rise in real estate values on lower Caroline Street, today perhaps the nicest streetscape in town).

1933 Aerial FRSP RG 18AA BOX 128 cropped on city dock

There is much more in this image, including Ferry Farm and numbers of buildings in town that are now gone and for which we have no other photographic record.  It’s a boon, whether you are interested in battlefield landscapes, the changing landscape at Chatham, or the evolution of a town whose downtown was, in 1933, the shopping mecca for the entire region. We’ll be offering more about it as we get a chance.

In the meantime, go ahead and explore the image yourself (a hi-res version is included below). If you spot something interesting, shout it out in the comments.  We have only had this image for a few hours, so we’re sure there is much there we’ve not yet noticed.

1933 Aerial FRSP RG 18AA BOX 128

For those of you who were with us, here is an approximation of the ground we covered during our 2011 tour of the lower crossing site.

For those of you who were with us, here is an approximation of the ground we covered during our 2011 tour of the lower crossing site.